Tracing the origins of sustainability change agency


In light of waning natural resources and mounting sustainability challenges, there is increasing practical as well as academic interest in how and why individuals, like you and me, can act toward a more sustainable tomorrow.

Individuals who actively act as catalyzers of sustainable development can be called sustainability change agents. Such change agency can manifest in various forms. For example, developing solutions for circular economy or combating climate change. We argue that in order to develop toward more sustainable societies, we need to understand individuals and their reasons to act as sustainability catalysts. To this end, our research team explored individuals’ reasons to engage in sustainability actions. We studied individuals actively engaged toward the sustainability agenda, studying their life courses via interviews to find out how sustainability change agency emerges.

So what is it that we found? Firstly, we found that an individual’s life path is meaningful in explaining his or her active engagement toward the sustainability agenda. A typical reason for sustainability agency to emerge relates to an individual’s experiences during their upbringing or education. For example, childhood experiences in nature can develop into a heightened sensitivity and caring towards the environment. In addition, mounting knowledge on environmental challenges during one’s educational path can push individuals to engage toward the sustainability agenda.

We encourage everyone to act as sustainability change agents. No action is too minor in fighting for a more sustainable tomorrow.

Another reason for active individuals’ sustainability engagement can be traced back to awakening moments that substantially alter one’s life course. Such moments occur, for example, in instances where one experiences a deep concern about the future via witnessing the deprivation of nature. Alternatively, such moments can relate to a remarkable event that shaped one’s worldview. Eventually, these moments turned out to be so powerful that they led the individuals to engage in sustainability actions, even when they had not manifested a significant prior interest in sustainability.

Based on these interviews, it became clear that individuals can and do influence the sustainability agenda. For example, in the 1990s, one active individual was a major influencer in the spread of the organic movement in Finland. Currently, she is conducting pioneering work in the import of various vegan products to Finland.

Going forward, we encourage everyone to act as sustainability change agents. No action is too minor in fighting for a more sustainable tomorrow.

Start now, the world needs you.


Dr. Katariina Koistinen and Prof. Satu Teerikangas

This blog text is based on a recently published article, appearing in Sustainable Development: Koistinen K, Teerikangas S, Mikkilä M, Linnanen L. Active sustainability actors: A life course approach. Sustainable Development. 2019; 1–16.

Additional reading about actors of sustainable development: Koistinen, K. Actors in Sustainability Transitions. 2019. Dissertation.